“Vito,’’ an HBO documentary, chronicles the life of Vito Russo (above), an outspoken activist in the gay-rights movement who died in 1990.
“Vito,’’ an HBO documentary, chronicles the life of Vito Russo (above), an outspoken activist in the gay-rights movement who died in 1990.
Bettye Lane/HBO

Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet,” published in 1981, was a trailblazing book. It chronicled decades of images of gays and lesbians in movies, both the overt depictions and, during the years of the Hays Code, the veiled, subtextual portrayals. Russo, who worked for a time in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showed how gay people were drawn as shadowy, psychopathic creatures, not unlike monsters in horror films. And he showed how, later, gay characters were inevitably tragic, self-loathing figures who often died by the end of the story.

With his encyclopedic knowledge of film, he created one of the most useful and impressive resources in the literature of cinema; he also showed how cultural artifacts can both reflect and create mainstream public sentiment. Even before “The Celluloid Closet” was in bookstores, Russo was delivering popular lectures on the subject at universities and cinemas across the country, using film clips to illustrate his points. He embraced the campiness of the gay images he’d found — he was far from humorless — while he educated people on what they represented.

“The Celluloid Closet” was a significant achievement. But there is much more to Russo’s legacy; producer-director Jeffrey Schwarz makes that abundantly clear in his affectionate documentary “Vito,” which premieres on HBO tonight at 9. Russo, who died from AIDS in 1990, was a devoted gay activist, beginning in the years after the pivotal Stonewall riots and continuing unabated through the first years of the AIDS epidemic, when our government and the FDA failed to respond appropriately. He was an early member of GAA (Gay Activists Alliance); he was one of the founding members of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation); and he was one of the founders of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). “AIDS is a test of who we are as a people,” we see him telling a crowd at one AIDS rally, wearing a “Silence = Death” T-shirt. “And when future generations ask what we did in the war, we’re going to have to be able to tell them that we were out here fighting.”

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“Vito” is filled with footage of Russo at many similar events, rallying crowds and, in one powerful incident, trying to quell crowd hostility toward drag queens, stirred partly by those who felt drag queens were degrading to women. Ultimately, Russo brought his friend Bette Midler — a popular bath-house performer — onto the stage, and his work was done. Toward the end of the film, Schwarz gives us a clip of Russo, now rail-thin and weakened by his illness, standing in a balcony above a gay pride march, listening to chants of “Vi-to, Vi-to, Vi-to” from the ACT UP contingent. It’s a moving moment.

Through many interviews with Russo’s family and friends, including Lily Tomlin and writers Larry Kramer, David Ehrenstein, and Bruce Vilanch, Schwarz creates a portrait of a warm, impassioned, articulate, and uninhibited man. As a child in East Harlem and New Jersey, Russo never internalized the homophobia around him, and he avoided the burden of shame that weighs on so many gays and lesbians. In a clip, he tells an interviewer that he always felt there was nothing aberrant about being gay: “Something this natural couldn’t be wrong.” His mother adored him, his brother and one of his cousins tell us, and he adored her. After many years of sexual freedom while living in New York, Russo met and fell in love with Jeffrey Sevcik in 1981; Sevcik died from AIDS a few years later.

HBO has become an appealing outlet for mainstream documentaries, and “Vito” is a good example of why. It’s a nicely assembled, topical film that gives us both a sweeping view of gay rights across almost 30 years, as well as an intimate look at an extraordinary person swept up in those times.